Was schoolgirl Bung Siriboon snatched off a suburban street in broad daylight?

Bung never made it to school on 2 June, 2011. To this day her family are no closer to finding out what happened to their smart and music-loving 13-year-old.

 

 

Just a typical teenager
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Each year, more than 38,000 people are reported missing in Australia. Although 95 per cent are found within a week, about 2,000 people remain missing long-term. Bung Siriboon is one of them. Her story is the last in an SBS series on missing persons from multicultural backgrounds.

Bung Siriboon’s school was barely 10 minutes’ walk away, along residential streets lined with banksia shrubs and brick veneer cottages – it took a bit longer if she met up with friends and dawdled, chatting about pop music and Justin Bieber.

Bung – her real name was Siriyakorn, but everyone knew her by her family nickname – was a typical 13-year-old, if a little more polite and deferential than most young teenagers, thanks to her traditional Thai upbringing.

Although not exactly streetwise, she knew to be wary of strangers, and would never get into a car with someone she didn’t know, according to her stepfather, Fred Pattison.

Nor would she dream of wagging classes. “She loved school, and being at school with her friends,” says Layla Preston, who entered Year 7 with her at Boronia Heights College, in Melbourne’s outer east, in 2011.

Thursday, 2 June, 2011 began like any other school day. After a breakfast of egg rice soup, Bung left the modest house which she shared with Fred, her mother, Vanidda, and elder sister, Siriporn (known as Pang), at about 8.30am. Fred, who had just finished a night shift at a local factory, was in the back room. “Bye, mum, see you later!” Bung called out.

Crossing Elsie St, where the family had mostly lived since migrating from Thailand four years earlier, she headed east. Three doors up, a neighbour’s dog barked as she hurried past, carrying her schoolbag; glancing through his lounge room window, the neighbour caught sight of the teenager in her blue and white uniform and blue raincoat.

Elsie St terminates in Albert Ave, a congested main road which Bung used to cross every morning, before turning left into quieter Harcourt Rd. A little way along Harcourt is the left turn into Moncoe St, a cul-de-sac which led to the high school’s back gate.

Someone reported seeing Bung in Harcourt Rd at about 8.55am, just 130 metres from the gate. But she didn’t make it to school on 2 June. And she hasn’t been seen since.   

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When Fred met Nid
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Long fascinated by Buddhism and martial arts and Asian culture, Fred Pattison first visited Thailand in the mid-1990s, taking long service leave from his fitter’s job at Carlton & United Breweries.

“I spent six weeks there, met some nice people and had some good experiences,” says Fred, who still lives in the family home in Elsie St.

“I had a lot of holiday saved up, so I started going backwards and forwards. I fell in love with the place.”

He also learnt Thai, which helped him and Vanidda to hit it off when he met her in Melbourne in 2004. She was on holiday; they kept in touch after she went home. Nid, as he calls her, lived in Ubon Ratchathani province, in the country’s north-east. She had two daughters from a marriage which broke up when the girls were small.

In 2006, Fred moved to Thailand for a while, to be with Nid, and for a change of scene. With Nid’s ex-husband largely absent, Fred became a father to Bung and Pang, who quickly grew to love and accept him. Bung, he remembers, was an adventurous child, always climbing trees – and sometimes falling out. Fred and Nid got married and started up a business, making awnings.

Unfortunately, the business did not thrive, and they struggled to service the mortgage they’d taken out on a house and some land.

Fred decided to return to Australia and look for a fly-in, fly-out mining job, but was hired by Cadbury’s as a fitter, his old trade.

The rest of the family joined him in 2008. Bung was 10; Pang was 17.

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From Thailand to Australia
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Fred and Nid wanted to give the girls "a better life and a better future and a good education".

The plan was to put them through school, pay off the family’s debts and then retire to Thailand.

“And if the kids wanted to go back, they could, but they’d have a level up from the Thais because of their Australian education,” explains Fred.

They bought the Elsie St house and transformed the front garden into a little oasis, with a swing and a pond and a riot of colourful shrubs and flowerbeds.

The sisters settled in, despite speaking little English initially. Pang completed the equivalent of Years 11 and 12 at an adult education college, graduating with a Victorian Certificate of Education.

Bung, after an intensive English course, attended the local primary school, which backed on to Elsie St, near the family home.

Fred liked that proximity. Growing up in Queenscliff, on Victoria’s Bellarine Peninsula, he had gone to school in Geelong, a 90-minute bus trip away. He also liked the tranquillity of suburban Boronia, next to the Dandenong Ranges.

"I wanted her [Bung] to grow up feeling safe. And there was no reason why she shouldn't feel safe walking to school. There were always lots of people around, particularly in the morning – kids going to school, commuters driving to work. The main bus route is near here, and there are two arterial roads. I certainly never had any concerns."  

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Dancing, Justin Bieber and a best friend
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Dyamai Hillard was in Year 4 at Boronia Primary when Bung arrived. The two girls sat next to each other.

“I really wanted to get to know her, but I think she found me annoying at first!” says Dyamai.

“She put a ruler down the middle of the desk so I couldn’t cross over to her side.” It wasn’t long, though, before the pair bonded.

Dyamai describes Bung as “a happy person, with a very kind heart and so caring... I was bullied a lot, and she was the only one who stood up for me... She could be quite shy with new people, but once she got to know them, she was very outgoing. She was always ready to talk to people and try new things. She was just so easy to be around.” 

The girls moved up to high school together. They would meet at a little park on the way to school. They walked home together, and hung out at each other’s houses.

At Dyamai’s, they watched TV and played with her dogs. Bung made Dyamai try Nid’s spicy noodles. At weekends, they did odd jobs, such as gardening, for neighbours, then spent the money at Maccas. Bung always had an ice cream sundae.

Academically, Bung excelled at maths. Above all, though, she loved dancing and singing and drama. She and Dyamai were rehearsing for the Rock Eisteddfod schools competition, as was Layla Preston, another close friend. Bung was into K-pop, a music genre from South Korea – after she disappeared, her parents discovered she had been teaching herself the Korean alphabet. And then there was Justin Bieber.

Layla recalls: “She absolutely loved Justin Bieber. She had a crush on him, and she’d always listen to his songs.”

Each morning, Layla would wait for Bung at the bottom of a tall flight of stairs leading to the school’s junior section. The two would swap music, and choreograph dances together.

At the time Bung went missing, they were working on a jazz/hip hop duo for a Years 7 to 9 performance night, “and I loved the choreography Bung was coming up with”, says Layla.

Even now, the Rihanna song they set it to makes her think of Bung, who was “just so bubbly and friendly, always making people laugh, always wanting to have fun”.

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'One of the good kids'
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At home, theirs was “a pretty normal happy family”, according to Fred. Nid worked part-time, most recently stuffing letterboxes with shopping catalogues.

The family took a couple of trips back to Thailand. They had beach outings, sometimes visiting Fred’s mother in Portarlington, near Queenscliff. Bung liked playing in the sand and swimming in the waves.

She and Pang often argued, but they always made up; despite the age difference, they were close.

As Dyamai saw it: “She [Bung] loved her sister, and she loved her parents. She fought with her mum sometimes, but just over the normal teenage stuff, like not wanting to clean up the dishes.”

Bung’s stepfather calls her “a girl that showed her emotions and was attuned to people’s feelings... If someone was on the outer or getting picked on, she’d befriend them. If you hurt yourself, she’d always be the first one there with a pill or a Band Aid.

“She was also very independent. If she didn’t like someone, you pretty much knew it... I wouldn’t call her streetwise, but she was an older soul. She was one of the good kids.”

Like most girls her age, Bung spent a lot of time in her bedroom. She liked drawing, and had several Facebook accounts.

As far as Fred and Nid knew, she had never had a boyfriend. Although very sociable, she preferred not to stay over at friends’ houses.

“She was not a terrible teenager,” says Fred. “She wasn’t one of those that was not coming home or not ringing up or running away.”   

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Panic sets in
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Layla recollects the roll being called on 2 June, and the silence that followed Bung’s name. “I thought to myself, ‘That’s weird, Bung’s always here.’”

Bung being such a diligent student, her teachers assumed she was sick. They didn’t call her parents; her parents, meanwhile, had no reason to think she wasn’t at school. She was always home on time, though, usually by 3.40pm.

At 4pm, Nid wondered aloud where she was. Just then, the phone rang.

Fred answered; it was Dyamai, calling to remind Bung that they were playing football the next day. He asked: “Why didn’t you tell her that at school today?” Dyamai replied: “She wasn’t at school today.” “And that’s when panic set in,” relates Fred. “I was like, ‘What do you mean, she wasn’t at school today?’”

He and Nid drove straight to Boronia Heights College, where the principal, Kate Harnetty, confirmed Bung had been absent.

Fred and Nid speed-searched the campus, including the library. No Bung. By 4.20pm, they were at Knox Police Station, where officers took a statement but urged them to speak to all family and friends.

Bung had left her mobile phone at home that day, which was not unusual.

It had been raining that morning, and Dyamai’s mother gave her a lift to school. They paused at the little park; Bung wasn’t there.

Later, Fred and Nid came over and asked Dyamai to help them contact Bung’s friends.

“I just sat there on the floor, crying,” she remembers. “I gave them phone numbers of everyone I could think of. It was so scary. I was so sad and shocked. It didn’t seem real.”

'We’ve got to find her'
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That day, Layla left school early, feeling unwell. In the afternoon, a friend phoned up. “She said: ‘Bung’s missing.’ I’ll never forget those words. I just started bawling. Then I was calling all my friends and telling them: ‘Bung’s missing, we don’t know where she is.’”

Fred and Nid phoned or visited every one of Bung’s friends. No one had seen her. Others in the school community were also anxiously calling around. Bung’s parents didn’t sleep; the next morning, they returned to Knox Police Station. And they began scouring the area.

They walked the streets, knocked on doors. They searched shops and parks, backyards and vacant blocks. They made posters, featuring a smiling Bung in school uniform, and taped them to lampposts and power poles, stuck them up at bus stops and in Boronia Mall.

“I don’t think we ate for a week,” recounts Fred, who took leave from his job.

“We were walking around in circles, in shock, trying to cope. I was beside myself, but I had to be strong to support my wife and daughter. It would have been so easy to fall apart, but instinct kicked in. It was like, ‘We’ve got to find her, what do we do?’

“Friends and workmates were dropping in and organising search parties, and people were setting up Facebook pages and bringing us food. There were TV cameras everywhere, and reporters sitting out front and chasing you down the street.”

After a month, Fred went back to the factory. He had always worked night shifts; now, though, Nid hated sleeping at home by herself. She couldn’t work, couldn’t concentrate on anything. Not long afterwards, she returned to Thailand.

“She went over there to get some solace with family and friends, to visit the temples, take her mind off things,” says Fred.

“She just couldn’t handle it here. Here was where everything had happened. Bung was the apple of Nid's eye. She and Bung were very connected, very close.”

Police investigation ramps up
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By Monday, 6 June, Knox detectives were on the case. Soon afterwards, the Homicide Squad took over – not because police assumed the worst, they reassured Bung’s family, but because the squad was well resourced.

Detectives doorknocked hundreds of homes. They traced tradesmen, delivery drivers and other outsiders who had passed through Boronia on the day Bung vanished.

They combed through CCTV footage from train stations, service stations and shopping centres. They questioned scores of known sex offenders living locally. They checked brothels, after tip-offs that a young Asian girl had been spotted in one. They followed up more than 1,000 pieces of information from the public.

They also turned a relentless gaze on Fred and others close to Bung.

“The father’s always the first suspect,” he says, with a shrug. “They searched me, searched the house, all the cupboards, the roof. They even searched under the house, because somebody said I’d been digging.

“I was under investigation for a long time. People were saying, ‘Oh, it’s got to be him.’ It didn’t worry me. I've got nothing to hide.”

Detectives trawled through Bung’s social media accounts, but found no indication that she had met anyone online. They also made inquiries in Thailand, including with her birth father; those, too, drew a blank.

Some young girls do run away, but not Bung. She had been her usual sunny self in the period leading up to her disappearance. There had been no major rows or incidents at home, nor any problems at school.

There was only one, grim conclusion to be drawn: somehow, she had been lured or forced into a car, in broad daylight, in an area teeming with people, without anyone seeing anything.

'A big hole in our friendship group'
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After Bung went missing, Boronia schoolchildren stopped walking to school on their own; instead, their parents escorted them or gave them lifts.

“We were told to be careful and walk in big groups,” says Layla Preston. “Everyone was stressed about it.”

A month later, another Boronia schoolgirl claimed a man had tried to drag her into a car, near Bung’s home. The 11-year-old eventually admitted making up the story.

However, a week earlier, a 16-year-old girl escaped what police believe was a genuine abduction attempt in Ringwood East, a 15-minute drive away.

Layla recalls the sombre mood at school. “After a week of her [Bung] not being there, we were so devastated and upset... That was a tough year. There was a big hole in our friendship group.”

Dyamai had “news reporters following me home and police rocking up all the time”. She felt oppressed by the photos of Bung all around her, on Missing Persons posters.

She moved to Byron Bay, in northern NSW, to live with her father for a while. Another friend had to switch school, unable to cope. Others received counselling.

Bung’s absence was keenly felt when Boronia Heights College won the Rock Eisteddfod state title in August.

“I kept thinking, ‘I wish Bung was here with us,’” sighs Layla. “She would have absolutely loved it.”

In November 2011, Victoria Police announced the formation of a special team, Taskforce Puma, to investigate her disappearance.

Weeks on, though, detectives had found nothing more than “a big bag of fresh air”, they told the 'Herald-Sun'.  

$1 million reward and still no leads
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It’s 3.30pm on a Friday afternoon, and Elsie St is awash with chattering children in blue and white uniforms. In 2014, Boronia Heights College moved to the primary school site, near Fred’s place; the amalgamated school is called Boronia K-12 College.

At home, Fred is surrounded by beaming photos of Bung. There’s one of her at Bangkok Airport, about to fly to Australia – the first time she got on a plane. One with Nid and Bang at a look-out on Mt Donna Buang, in the Victorian Alps, where they went tobogganing. One of her when she graduated from primary school.

He has videos, too ­– of Bung singing and dancing in her living room. Dyamai shot some of them. “She loved the camera,” says her friend. Fred rarely watches them: it’s too painful.

In 2013, in a dramatic twist, a man claimed to have hit and killed Bung with his car, panicked and buried her body at a local reserve. Police searched the reserve but found nothing, and released the man after arresting and questioning him twice, saying parts of his story did not add up.

Detectives also grilled Robert Knight, out of jail and living near Boronia after kidnapping and sexually assaulting two schoolgirls in 1980 and 1996. He, too, was ruled out as a suspect, and Puma was disbanded in late 2013.

There were two potential sightings of Bung on the morning of 2 June, one in Boronia, the other in nearby Rowville. The first was of an Asian girl looking out of the back window of a white Ford Falcon wagon driven by a Caucasian man in his 50s or 60s, with a slicked-back hairstyle and a tattoo.

The second was of an Asian girl in the front seat of a white station wagon, possibly a Holden HQ Kingswood, driven by a Caucasian man in his late 30s or early 40s, also tattooed. Neither led police anywhere constructive.

Not even a $1 million reward – on offer since 2014, along with immunity from prosecution – has enabled detectives to make headway, although the investigation remains active.

“That’s the hard thing,” says Fred. “There’s just nothing. It’s like one minute she's there and the next she's gone. But you don't just walk down a street and vanish. Somebody knows something; they just need to have a conscience and come forward. We want to hear any information, even if it’s bad.”

He and Nid are convinced, though, that Bung is alive. Both devout Buddhists, they have consulted “hundreds of monks and mediums, and they all say that she hasn’t passed over”, relates Fred.

“We have to believe that, because there’s no evidence otherwise. We have to believe that one day she’ll be back.”

Nid remains in Thailand, although she has returned for holidays and Fred goes out there as often as he can. He has looked after Pang, who graduated from Swinburne University with an international business degree last year.

Pang “isn’t a big one to show emotions, but she's lost her younger sister, she misses her sister, and she’s kept busy by putting herself through education”, according to Fred.  

'We've been waiting so long'
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Bung would have turned 19 in June. Her friends graduated from high school last year without her.

Layla says: “Life goes on, but when I think about her, I feel so sad in my heart, because I miss her smile and her laugh and her energy and her presence.”

Dyamai has Bung’s name and birthdate tattooed on her leg. She is still traumatised by the loss of her friend. Weeping, she says: “I can't walk home by myself at night time. I don't take my dogs for walks any more. I can't sleep in the dark without a light on. I’ve had counselling, but it doesn’t help, because there's no closure... It’s agonising not knowing where my best friend is and whether she’s safe. And I really cannot imagine the pain her parents have gone through. They're heartbroken.”

For Fred, it “doesn’t get any easier with time”. He reflects: “I try not to think about what could have happened to her [Bung]. If you think too much about it, it drives you crazy. You don't want to get out of bed in the morning. You don't even want to wake up.” Christmas and New Year are always difficult, he says, because of Bung’s birthday on 30 December. June, when she vanished, is also tough.

In June last year, around the time of the anniversary, Year 12 – Bung’s year – planted a tree in the grounds of K-12 College. A solar light shines on the tree, and a plaque bears the words: “Lights will guide you home”, from a Coldplay song. At a little ceremony, Layla and three other friends delivered a speech, and five white balloons were released – one for each year Bung had been missing.

This year, the same four friends marked the sixth anniversary by getting matching tattoos, each featuring the word “hopeful”.

“Because we all loved her and we’ll never lose hope,” explains Layla.

“We still have hope that one day we'll get some answers. We've been waiting so long, and we miss her terribly.”

If you have any information regarding a missing person, please contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.